Hollywood, we have a problem. Studies have shown that women are underrepresented in film and television in comparison to their male counterparts. Sarah Gavron, director of Suffragette and Brick Lane explained it best when she said, “We’ve got to do all we can to break this ridiculous pattern where year in, year out, nothing changes. We’re 51% of the world, we buy more than half the cinema tickets, we need these stories to be reflected. There are so few Oscar-nominated films with female protagonists – it’s astounding what a boys’ club it is.” [1] In a 2018 study titled, It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World, “Only 35 percent of films included 10 or more female speaking roles, but a staggering 82 percent of movies had at least 10 male characters with speaking roles. Women represented only 36 percent of major characters in film in 2018 – a one per cent decline from the 37 per cent recorded in 2017.” [2]

A study is unnecessary to bring to light this information. Blatant misrepresentation of women in film has been perpetuated for decades. Generations have been influenced by this bias which, sadly, started at a very young age with Disney cartoons.

It is rare to find someone who did not grow up watching Disney movies. Some of Disney’s most popular features were a part of the Disney Princess Franchise and included Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid to name a few. These princesses displayed similar female archetypes in their protagonists and villains.

Every Princess had comparable physical attributes: an hourglass figure, beautiful hair and an attractive face. They were mistreated by their evil stepmother or a witch because of their beauty only to be rescued in the end by a Prince who was initially attracted to them because of their beauty. They did not have a positive maternal relationship, if there was a female figure in their life at all and did not have any close female friends.

They are depicted as being domesticated, graceful and naïve, often finding themselves in dangerous situations, dependent on men to save them. They play a passive role in determining their own fates which is always to marry a man.

Portraying these very young women in this way creates a character that is childish and unintelligent but because of their physical appearance has also become sexualized.

The Princesses female villains are always shown as being ugly, vain and malicious. Their plots often consist of imprisoning or eliminating the Princesses out of jealousy. This rivalry promotes hatred and competition between the women.

Unfortunately, female rivalry is a tale as old as time. Perpetuated beyond the Disney universe, it has been a common theme throughout cinema, even by today’s standards, when we are seeing more stories centered around women than ever before. Films like Mary, Queen of Scots, The Favorite and Terminator: Dark Fate pit woman against woman.

Ironically, Terminator: Dark Fate, was an attempt to address the misogyny that critics believed was present in the original Terminator film. The film’s story, created by five men and written by three, centers around three women Sarah Connor, Dani and Grace. While it is admirable that they chose to make the protagonists strong women, the characters were not believable and their actions not realistic. It is not plausible that Dani would in just a handful of years become a leader of a revolution, commanding an army which consists of criminals. Because of this unbelievable leap in plot, her leadership role is not earned and can’t be fully appreciated, which undermines their attempt to empower her as a woman.

The animosity between Sarah and Grace is unfounded and not explained. Because there is no explanation as to why these two strong women would dislike each other, I can only guess that the writers were just capitalizing on the drama of a female rivalry. Or, it could just simply be because there were no women behind the scenes voicing their opinion on whether this portrayal of women was accurate or not.

It’s easy to see how that may have been the case with Terminator: Dark Fate and a host of other films. In her Los Angeles Times article Sonaiya Kelley explains, “Films with at least one woman in a directing or writing role were more likely to feature women as protagonists and in major and speaking roles — 58% of films featuring a female director or screenwriter included a female protagonist compared with 30% of films written or directed by men.” [3]  As of 2019 only 20% of the writers in Hollywood were women, 12% were directors and only 26% producers.[4] It’s no surprise why so many movies either depict female character’s inaccurately or are sexist or misogynist towards them.

To further prove why these stereotypical characters are not only wrong but offensive, we need only look at the relatively small number of women who coexist behind the scenes in Hollywood. Amma Asante director of Belle and A Way of Life explains, “There’s a lot of female camaraderie in the industry and I benefit from that as well as try to contribute towards it; there is definitely a sisterhood.” Her sentiment is echoed by Cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Blow), “Many women in the industry do look out for each other. I have had fantastic experiences with women producers, directors and creatives.” Amanda Neville is the chief executive of the British Film Institute and offers an encouraging message to women, “One thing we’re keen to ensure is an expectation among women that they can find a way into the industry. It’s about saying to young women: you can do this.” [5]  While women have been portrayed as weak and defenseless and female rivalry may still exist on screen these characteristics are in stark contrast to how many women in Hollywood act off screen in an otherwise cut-throat industry.

This push to include more female talent in the production of movies has had a positive impact on what or who is shown on screen. In 2019 the percentage of films featuring a female protagonist increased to a recent historic high of 40%. [6] Films like Bombshell and Hustlers give an honest depiction of the plight of women in male dominated work places or situations.

We even see major changes within the Disney Princess franchise with the movie Frozen in which the main characters are strong women and do not end up with a man. In 2019’s Aladdin, Princess Jasmine who wears much less revealing clothes, takes control of her own destiny singing, “I won’t go Speechless”.

Possibly the best example of a female character’s ascension towards an equal status with male characters is Marvel’s Black Widow. Having started as a glorified secretary in Iron Man the Black Widow has risen the ranks of her male co-stars and is now featured in her own film to be released in April of this year. In league with the Black Widow is Captain Marvel whose character is arguably the most powerful in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While Hollywood still has a long way to go in terms of representing women appropriately both on screen and off, the progress already made in recent years provides hope that this can be done. Incorporating more women into the creation and production of films is necessary in order to see more equality. In doing so, the stories told and the characters created will change the mindset of our culture and inspire future filmmakers.

Alicia Malone, a Fandango correspondent and author of The Female Gaze, describes well what the ideal landscape of Hollywood should look like, “In the future, we hope to not have to do surveys about women in film, not to have panels on women in film and not only have women direct movies about women and men direct movies about men. The idea is that a variety of voices, a variety of perspectives will make movies better for all us.” [7]